Perhaps, it was due to what Xerxes was feeding his livestock, or a sign from the gods, or even more likely, just an embellishment from storytellers and historians. Whatever the reason, odd things kept happening to the animals that Xerxes brought with him on his invasion of Greece.
From around 484-481 BCE, King Xerxes the Great of Persia prepared for his invasion against the Greek city-states. When enough soldiers, equipment, supplies and beasts of burden were all gathered together in a single location, Xerxes set out, around 480 BCE, with his invasion force from Sardis (in the center of western Anatolia) and headed for the Hellespont, now known as the Dardanelles, which links the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara.
While Xerxes was still near Sardis, something bizarre occurred with one of the animals that had been collected for the expedition. According to the dubious sources of the ancient historian, Herodotus (c. 490-425/420 BCE), or possibly just the historian’s own imagination, a mule miraculously gave birth to a foal. This account is miraculous enough as it is—mules are naturally sterile—yet, the foal born from this particular mule was also allegedly a hermaphrodite, with both male and female sexual organs. Herodotus even claimed to have knowledge of which order the genitalia was arranged. He wrote, “There had previously been another portent in Sardis, when a mule dropped a foal with a double set of sexual organs, male and female—the former uppermost” (The Histories, Book 7).
Another miraculous birth from Xerxes’ livestock occurred after he crossed the Hellespont. This outrageous birth involved a pregnant mare. While the previous story about the mule is considered to be impossible, it still fit within the realm of comprehension. This next account, however, does not make any biological sense, at all. Just hear it from Herodotus’ own serious and deadpan tone: “After the whole army had reached the European shore and the forward march had begun, a great portent occurred—a mare gave birth to a hare” (The Histories, Book 7).
The most curious thing about this tale—if there is any grain of truth to it, in the first place—is that Xerxes had no sense of shock to these bizarre events and kept marching further into Greece without a second thought. It makes you wonder how many freakish things were happening with Xerxes’ livestock to make the king not even bat an eye amidst such strange sights.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (“Lao Thu Thu Tan- Old Rat Taking a Bride”, a woodblock print, produced by artisans from the village of Dong Ho in North Vietnam. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons). The picture isn’t Greek, but hey, it shows odd animals.
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.